Machu Picchu is visually one of the planet’s most unique and inspirational sites. Combine its visual beauty with the intriguing story of a “lost city” high in the Andes being “discovered” centuries after it was abandoned has made this site obtain almost a mythical status. One can attempt to experience Machu Picchu through videos, photographs and glowing travel writing, but there is absolutely no substitute to visiting the site in person. Unfortunately, today’s Machu Picchu experience has changed dramatically from years ago. A challenging maze of regulations and high prices were implemented in more recent years due to mass tourism and the freedoms that travelers once enjoyed during their visits, are gone forever.
Machu Picchu is one of the most significant historical sites South America – it dates from about 500 years ago. Not only is it a well preserved/restored city but its location projects a surrealism and a feel that other historical cities simply do not have. It is located on a small natural saddle between Machu Picchu Mountain and the rugged looking Huayna Picchu Mountain. Located at about 7,500 feet Machu Picchu is in a cloud forest – it can be wet and foggy any time of the year.
Local Indians actually knew about Machu Picchu while farming in the vicinity of the ruins, however it wasn’t until 1911 that an American named Hiram Bingham “discovered” & pilfered the ruins and publicized his findings to the outside world. He then conducted a series of excavations and exported many of the artifacts to the USA. Bingham only discovered the ruins for the outside world; local Indians were the ones who in fact introduced them to Bingham.
General Inca Trail Information
The Inca trail is the most popular trek in South America. The two most popular options for this hike are the 2-day or the 4-day trek. Unfortunately it is becoming VERY difficult and VERY expensive to hike the Inca Trail with prices often $700 to $2000/person depending on the tour operator.
Also note that the main 4-day Inca trail is closed part of the year due to inclement weather. The Peruvian tourism authority limits the number of people on the Inca trail at any one time to a maximum of 500 people per day (200 paying persons and 300 guides/staff); they need to know the names and passport numbers of all hikers at least 6 days in advance.
As of early 2020 coveted permits for hiking the Inca trail (normal 4-day hike) during the low season of December and January were being filled 30-40 days in advance. At minimum you MUST reserve your spot for the Inca trail 2 weeks in advance however this is the minimum and in the high season (May through September) up to 4 months in advance is much more preferable or more time if possible. Note that these are suggested times and sometimes there may be availability on shorter notice. However there is no wait list once spots are filled. AND all permits MUST be reserved through approved tour operators. Many of the popular tourist destinations – i.e. Lima, Cuzco and Arequipa have travel agencies that can make reservations for the Inca trail. One cannot hike the Inca trail independently.
To reserve a spot on the Inca trail online, you will most likely have to pay a company in advance. Some of the larger tour companies do take major credit cards but most of the normal trekking companies do not, and you will have to digitally send them a deposit (usually 50% of the trip cost). The tour company needs the deposit money as they have to pay the government at the time they make trail reservations.
Note: a guide MUST accompany all hikers on any of the multiple Inca day treks. The largest group size allowed is 16 people. You cannot hike the Inca trail by yourself. There are guarded checkpoints to stop such activities.
The cheapest cost for hiking the 4-day Inca trail around 2004 when we first visited Machu Picchu (we have since been back) was around $80. Now because of the increased cost of the train, trail permit fees, and markups by tour operators, we have seen single person costs ranging from about $800 to $2000.The cost of getting into the trail is significant. The cost of a round trip ticket on the backpacker train is $80-$120 depending on the class of ticket. A two day trek will cost close to $700+ per person with discounts given for additional people.
Regardless of which hike, one should expect to have some wet weather, cold nights and plenty of ascending and descending. The high point of the 4-day trek is 4200 meters, about 13,800 feet.
Two Day Inca Trek
This name is completely misleading as the actual trek portion is no more than 4-6 hours on the first day only. In addition you are actually only hiking on the real Inca trail for the last hour or two. The trail that leads up the side of the canyon from kilometer 104 is not the real Inca Trail but rather a side trail that leads to the real Inca Trail. The Backpacker train stops at Kilometer 104 for the 2-day trek. Its a very quick stop, so you have to be observant. You can tell the conductor on your own train-car – when you board the train in Cuzco, that you will be getting off at KM 104 and he may alert you just before you reach KM 104.
The advantage of the two-day Inca Trail hike is that it is shorter and also a bit cheaper then the 4-day trek and it allows hikers to arrive at Machu Picchu early the next morning at sunrise, before the hordes of tourists arrive by train and bus later in the morning. If you are not on an organized tour and have a few days, and will book all your transportation/lodging yourself, you can plan on staying at Aguas Calientes a night or two – this way you can get to Machu Picchu early in the morning before the vast majority of tourists arrive.
Once you get off the Backpacker train at kilometer 104, you will be standing by the train tracks watching the train whiz by you and then finally disappear around a bend. Next you will walk down a short path until you reach a guard station. There you and your guide will give the guards your passport, as you have already reserved your name for the hike, weeks or months in advance. Your name will be on the guards list. After leaving the guard shack, you will cross a bridge over the raging river and begin your hike up the other side. A bathroom is located about 5-10 minutes from the bridge.
You may visit one small ruin as you begin your hike – the hike is fairly steady but not too steep of a climb up the side of the canyon opposite the train tracks – you will climb approximately 2000 feet (approx 610 meters) from the bridge to the high point on the 2-day Inca trek. You will hike through some pretty vegetation including some orchids. There are several “huts” or rest stops along the trail. Around lunch time you will be at the Wiyay Wayna lodge. This “lodge” used to be a hostel where hikers on the Inca Trail could stay. The government has disallowed overnight stays here due to overuse and garbage problems. So now hikers on the 4-day Inca trail hike camp nearby – hikers doing the 2-day trek merely stop here for lunch. Some food and drinks are also sold here.
From the Wiyay Wayna lodge its about a 90 minute hike to the “Sun Gate.” This will be your first glimpse of Machu Picchu – Machu Picchu is way off in the distance and looks very small from this vantage point. The Sun Gate is located on the real Inca Trail at the top of a pass – from here there are excellent views of Machu Picchu way in the distance as well as views of other nearby majestic mountains.
From here its about an hour or less hike down to Machu Picchu. On the two day trek, on the first day – you will not have time to visit Machu Picchu, but rather will hike just above it. You can either take the bus down to Aguas Calientes, hike down the road, or hike straight down the side of the mountain on steep steps that cross the road every time it switches back. Its at least an hour if not longer hike from the Machu Picchu entrance station to the town of Aguas Calientes – and a very very steep hike. The cost of the bus as of early 2020 is approximately $12 US dollars one way (Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes). You will spend the night in one of many Aguas Calientes hostels or guest houses. Incidentally, Aguas Calientes is not the real name of this city – its real name is the Village of Machu Picchu but most guide books and references list it as Aguas Calientes.
Note the excellent hot water baths in Aguas Calientes, but avoid the loud rude Americans that somehow we met during several visits to these baths – should they be here. There are about 8 or so different baths, some of which are hotter then others. Drinks are provided next to the baths. Changing rooms are available, but no lockers – so leave your money belt or valuables with someone you trust. The hottest waters are not scalding and are rather pleasant to spend some time in. The cost for the baths is approximately 20 soles.
The next morning its best to be on the bus by 6 or 6:30am. This way you can be at Machu Picchu by 6:30 or 7am, theoretically before the larger groups arrive later in the day. At this time of the morning, with good lighting, photography is extra special. You can elect to stick with your guide for an hour or two to hear about the history of Machu Picchu, or you can take off to absorb the “vibe” of the ruins on your own.
The following included items are typically included on a 2-day Inca Trail trek:
-Transfer to train station
-Train to the trail head km-104
-English speaking guide
-Permit to enter the Inca trail
-Entrance ticket to the Inca trail and Machu Picchu
-Lodge in hostel, shareable room
-Meals, 1 breakfast, 1 lunch, 1 dinner
-Transportation to return to Cusco (train-bus)
If you are rushed for time, and hiking is not you thing, consider the one day Backpacker train trip. At present, reservations are not needed more than a few days in advance of your visit to Machu Picchu if you choose this option, BUT, during the busy season you may want to reserve much more than a week in advance. If you choose this option and you arrange all the transportation and tickets yourself, expect to pay anywhere from $80 to $120 US (round trip) for the backpacker train ride, to and from either Cuzco or Poroy (the train station stop in Poroy – a small village, is about 15 minutes from Cuzco) to Machu Picchu.
If you use a travel agency expect to pay significantly more. A first class car is sometimes the only one available if the 2nd class cars are all booked. But, the first class car is available for only a few dollars more! Its a bit nicer than the 2nd class car – with cleaner bathrooms, free drinks, and reclining seats for additional leg room.
A “local” train is heavily discounted each way from Cuzco to Machu Picchu and for the return trip, but apparently tickets to this train are not sold to tourists. However, if you know someone who is Peruvian, we have been told they can purchase tickets for their friends on this train; if you are on a tight budget, this would allow you to save significant transportation costs.
A small coffee shop in the station sells basic eateries and a limited number of breakfast items including pastries and orange juice. You need to be at the train station by 5:30am as the train leaves by 6am sharp. Be sure to wear some warm clothes initially as the train is NOT heated at all and it can get quite cold. The train slowly climbs out of the Cuzco valley via many sharp switchbacks. The train will go to the end of a switchback, then stop and will head back the opposite direction just a little bit higher.
Because of the numerous switchbacks it takes about 50 minutes to an hour to climb out of Cuzco to the top of the ridge. The high point on this ridge is just a nudge over 12,100 feet (reading taken from our personal altimeter). It takes about 4.5 hours from the Cuzco train station to the train station in Aguas Calientes (the closest town to Machu Picchu). Along the way you will travel through scenic valleys and along side the fierce and wild Urubamba river, deep in the canyon. If its clear sometimes passengers can see very jagged glacier capped peaks rising high above the canyon. Just before you get to Aguas Calientes one may see a fairly large scar on the hillside from a terrible mudslide in early 2004 which killed several villagers, destroyed the train tracks and stranded hundreds of tourists at Machu Picchu. This scar has significantly diminished over time.
The train ends at Aguas Calientes and departing passengers hop on waiting buses which leave when they are full. Bus drivers all know the train arrival times so there is never a shortage of waiting buses. From here, its about 25 minutes by bus on a dirt road which winds its way past the river and finally climbs up to Machu Picchu via a series of numerous sharp switchbacks. Passengers will arrive near a large hotel and a drop off area. From here its a 15-20 minute walk to the main entrance.
NOTE: on your return trip, the train may stop at a station before the train drops down the ridge into Cuzco. You may have an option to take a bus into Cuzco which takes approx 15 minutes from this station, rather then continue on the train which will take over an hour because of all the switchbacks. The cost of the bus is reasonably priced.
You can purchase tickets through Peru Rail: www.perurail.com, largely (if not completely) owned by Orient Express.
Since 2011 there has also been another company operating on this line called Inca Rail (www.incarail.com) – they offer pretty similar services to Peru Rail but they’re slightly cheaper.
By Peruvian standards, the prices are extremely high for food & drink at the cafe located at the entrance. However sometimes you can get a rare Granadilla Gatorade! The prices however, do make sense as its quite a ways to bring food and supplies in. Snacks only are allowed to be brought into the ruins (no picnic lunches). The hamburgers at the cafe are a bit greasy, but if you are starving this may not bother you. You have to ask for ketchup and mustard & mayonnaise as these items are not automatically given to you. A few outdoor tables have umbrellas. Note, around 12:30pm it is difficult to find a seat as the cafe fills up very quickly during lunch time.
Bring a hat and suntan lotion, the suns rays can be quite fierce at this elevation.
Backpacks are not allowed past the main gate – a special room is for checking in bags (they can be stored for free until you exit Machu Picchu). You must have a purchased Machu Picchu ticket in order to check your bags – staff will give you a receipt which you return to them when you return. Also note the free walking sticks available near the entrance (return these also when departing). Walking sticks are good to have especially if you decide to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu (see below).
Other items to be aware of, admission through the main entrance is limited a certain number of people per day. No disposable water bottles are allowed past the entrance. Admission is only allowed at staggered intervals daily. And all visitors must use one of the provided guides and are no longer allowed wander the grounds independently.
Visitors must purchase tickets in one of two places as tickets are no longer sold at the main entrance to Machu Picchu.
1. Machu Picchu Cultural Centre Machu Picchu Cultural Centre in the town of Aguas Calientes (15 minutes from the entrance to Machu Picchu
2. At the Instituto Nacional de Cultura on Calle San Bernado, a few blocks off of the main square (Plaza de Armas) in Cuzco. The ticket is valid for 3 days after the purchase date but can only be used to enter Machu Picchu one time.
With regulations and prices constantly changing, the best resource for staying up on all of this is the official website for Machu Picchu: www.machupicchu.gob.pe
As of our last update, entry is $45 USD for a ticket to Machu Picchu (extra to climb either Machupicchu Mountain or Waynapicchu, but not both). From the main entrance, it is a short 10-15 minute hike up the mountain on a well worn trail to the first view of Machu Picchu. Visitors can walk up the trail the entire ways to the hut located above the actual city of Machu Picchu. The classic shots of Machu Picchu are from near this small house, called the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock located near the viewing area, near the end of the Inca Trail. The funerary rock was hand carved by the Incas and is roped off directly behind the hut. Visitors with a guide, are free to walk among most of the ruins here with the exception of the main courts in the center of the city which are roped off.
Visitors are limited to 4 hours maximum inside Machu Picchu. Those who want to spend more time, must purchase another ticket and return another day. It takes a while to absorb the incredible beauty of this place – one may want to spend a bit of time walking around on the high vantage points before descending and walking within the ruins of Machu Picchu.
As you walk the trail heading towards Machu Picchu from the main entrance, you can either walk all the way up to the hut (as mentioned above), or you can walk into the Machu Picchu ruins by leaving the main trail and walking by one of two small houses, and then walking along one of the terraces built into the hillside. Continuing along the terrace one will soon be in the actual ruins. This is a shortcut to Machu Picchu, rather than walking to the lookout hut (as mentioned above) and then having to walk into the ruins.
Visitors also have a choice of hiking several trails within the immediate vicinity including up Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu, the the jagged mountain directly behind Machu Picchu.
Huayna Picchu Climb
The climb up Huayna Picchu mountain is well worth doing if you are in shape and don’t mind a steep arduous climb. The views from the top are spectacular. From the check in hut at the beginning of this trail it takes about 1 hour to reach the top of the mountain. The beginning of the trail to the top of Huayna Picchu is located to the rear of Machu Picchu (IE, you will need to walk all the way through the actual ruins to reach the trailhead). Hikers need to sign their name and start time on the registry. Every name is listed next to a number, be sure to remember your “number” as the pages fill up with names of climbers, later in the day. The trail closes at 1pm. When you return you will also need to sign your name in order to checkout.
The trail is narrow and very steep – fortunately there are ropes and cables mounted next to the steepest sections. Be very careful especially going down; wet rocks makes hiking extra slippery. Towards the top a set of stone steps are set into an almost vertical part of the trail. As you reach these steps you can choose to walk to the right or left or you can walk straight up the steps. Taking the left path is probably a little easier hike to the top. The right side will lead to three man made stone platforms with rock steps sticking out the side. Once you descend slightly through these, pay particular attention to stay away from the vertical multiple thousand foot drop. Then you will climb under and through several large boulders at which point you will find yourself right next to the top of the mountain.
The summit offers stunning views of the surrounding mountain, although Machu Picchu is somewhat lost in the surrounding views as it is partially hidden by the mountain you are on. At certain times of the year hundreds of black little biting flies hang out around the summit. They are quite annoying as they buzz around the prime viewing spots. However, once you get off the top rock on this mountain the flies leave you alone. The rope that used to be anchored in one of the rock faces below the summit is no longer there, so be careful if you decide to descend from the summit on the steep rock face.
Hiking in the actual ruins is very different than seeing them from above. From this summit perch, one gets a real feel for how the city was constructed and how much work was involved in cutting and moving the large rocks.
Once back among the ruins, check out the “most perfectly constructed wall in all of South America” and the only circular constructed building in all of Machu Picchu. Most tourists are here from the hours of 10-2pm. If you can be at Machu Picchu before or after this time, there really are not a lot of people walking among the ruins. The lighting changes dramatically throughout the day; visitors really need at least two admission tickets to absorb these changes and to fully explore the ruins.
See how many buses you can count on the dirt switch back road leading up to Machu Picchu’s entrance from Aguas Caliente! At one point, we counted 11 buses on the road at the same time.